Rape-revenge films have a reputation for being exploitative. They torture their female characters, showing graphic depictions of sexual assault and mutilation, all the while sexualizing their bodies in what wouldn’t seem to be sexual settings. However, one recent film seeks to fight back against that convention to make audiences painfully aware of how they view the female body. Coralie Fargeat’s directorial debut, Revenge, is a rape-revenge film made by a woman that attempts to confront the male gaze with a narrative that doesn’t merely rely on exploitation.
Before launching into an analysis of Revenge, it is important to understand what exactly I mean by the male gaze. The term was coined by critic Laura Mulvey in her essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, where she uses psychoanalysis to examine and attempt to explain the fascination with film. The male gaze is at the core of her argument, which is described by Mulvey as such:
“Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as signifier of the male to her, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as a bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning.”
Essentially, women in film are merely there for male viewers to impose their own fantasies upon the female body. In horror films specifically, this can be when the camera lingers on the tortured body of a woman as she is being murdered, or lingering on her breasts when her character is first introduced. The woman becomes a sexual object for men to watch. This can seem strange because film is a medium that is all about watching. However, that is also part of Mulvey’s argument. While film is a medium built around scopophilia, the person who controls the camera dictates how one views this medium. In regard to film in general, and more specifically the horror film, the camera is typically controlled by a man. This means that what viewers see is controlled by a male gaze.
This comes to play significantly in rape-revenge films such as I Spit on Your Grave (1978) and Ms. 45 (1981). Women are tortured and raped in the name of the male gaze and to impose some kind of sick fantasy onto these fictional bodies. However, Fargeat seeks to confront that in Revenge. Having a woman directing this film as opposed to a man makes all the difference in how Jen, the film’s protagonist, is presented. Not only is Fargeat careful in her representation, but she tackles the male gaze head on, making it almost uncomfortably apparent.
Revenge follows Jen (Matilda Lutz), who is on vacation with her wealthy, hot and married boyfriend, Richard (Kevin Janssens). While enjoying their time together in the sun, Richard’s friends surprise the couple by showing up for a hunting trip. Stan (Vincent Colombe) and Dimitri (Guillaume Bouchède) take a special liking to Jen, staring at her with the mouths agape, practically drooling at the sight of her. This eventually leads to Stan raping Jen. In an attempt to defend herself, Jen threatens to tell Richard’s wife about their relationship. This leads to her attempted murder. Unfortunately for the men, they didn’t kill Jen, and she is ready to fight back.
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When Jen is first introduced, she appears to be a parody of a sexualized woman. She sucks on a lollipop, clothed in various shades of pink, and her long blonde hair falls in waves past her shoulders. She looks like a modern day Lolita combined with a stereotypical sorority girl.
Several scenes later, Jen walks to the kitchen to get something to eat — a normal, everyday task. However, the camera focuses on her butt and crotch, as she wears bright pink panties and a pink crop top that exposes her tan, flat stomach. As Jen walks to the fridge looking for breakfast, the camera moves from her crotch up to her face, then back down. It imitates the way someone looks at a beautiful woman’s body but doesn’t want to seem too obvious. The audience views Jen’s body in parts, rather than seeing her as a whole. She is combination of sexualized parts meant to fulfill male desire.
Then, Stan sees Jen. First, the audiences sees what Jen sees: a strange, balding man staring at her with his mouth slightly open. His eyes dart up and down her body. Then, the audience sees what Stan sees: a woman barely clothed. He looks at her through a pink glass, which creates an even further idealized image of Jen’s body, as if she is a mirage in the desert. In showing both of their perspectives, viewers are able to further recognize how the gaze functions with the characters of the film, as well as the audience itself.
In this interaction with Stan, one also sees that not only does the camera gaze at Jen, but that the male characters of Revenge obviously gaze at her, too. As the camera lingers on Jen’s body, so does it linger on the hungry stares of Richard, Stan and Dimitri. It is not only Jen that viewers are forced to look at — it is also her attackers. They almost salivate over her, with Stan never able to take his eyes off of Jen. It is uncomfortable to realize how he obsesses over her, but then again, the audience also stares at Jen. Placing viewers in the shoes of the attackers is another method in confronting the gaze and making the audience aware of it.
After Jen is raped and then left for dead, her body is “ruined.” It has been pierced by a tree and is no longer the perfect, tanned form that viewers gazed at before. Her blonde hair is stained red and brown with blood and muck. Her perfectly manicured nails are chipped and broken. The only image of her past self that remains is her bright pink star earrings. Yet, despite this bodily destruction, the audience must still gaze at her body and be confronted with the grotesque. Fargeat is almost saying, “well, if you want to look at her, you must look at her no matter her condition.” It is a grotesque way of calling out the male gaze, but it is an effective one.
This comes to play specifically when Jen cauterizes her own wound using an empty beer can. The camera cuts to the gaping wound that has pierced her stomach, a mark of obvious imperfection. As Jen places the hot metal to her skin, the camera doesn’t cut away. Instead, it stays on her stomach, making the audience watch the damage being done to the perfect body from the film’s beginning. Her skin sizzles and still viewers are not allowed to look away. If the audience must gaze at Jen’s body, one must gaze at it in all states. Later, as Jen wakes up and realizes what she has done, Fargeat highlights the injury with an extreme close up; it doesn’t even look like skin, but something disgusting and burnt, like a piece of meat left on the grill too long. As the camera zooms out, an eagle permanently branded into Jen’s skin comes into view. Again, the camera stays on this injury, not just flashing it, but making the audience really look at it to understand the meaning. Jen’s body will never be the same, marked forever by the injury that men inflicted upon her.
In just these few examples, one can see how Coralie Fargeat uses Revenge as an empowering rape-revenge film that confronts the male gaze through bodily decay and grotesque imagery. She puts the audience in the shoes of Jen’s attackers, forcing viewers to confront their own role in consuming cinema. In the hands of a female director, the topic is handled with care but not at the expense of violence and gore. Fargeat merely uses the film to shift the power dynamics implicitly involved in the rape-revenge subgenre. She tries to empower Jen rather than exploit her in the name of entertainment.
Mary Beth McAndrews (@mbmcandrews) is a freelance film writer with a love of all things horror based in Washington, D.C. She’s a contributor for Much Ado About Cinema and Nightmare on Film Street. Her hobbies include trying to get her friends to watch horror movies and annoying her cat.